Book Review : Jordan Peterson - 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
There are billions of dead facts. The internet is a graveyard of dead fats. But an idea that grips a person is alive. It wants to express itself to live in the world.
Last June, I bought Dr. Jordan Peterson’s latest book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos and mischievously announced it on my Facebook timeline without giving any context. Because I wanted to see what would happen. The controversial clinical psychologist turned public intellectual is primarily known for his polarizing statements on masculinity, gender-neutral pronouns and ideological discourse overtaking academia, so he’s basically Lord Voldemort to my online friend who fancy social justice.
My announcement was predictably met with confusion, discontent and disappointment from people I’ve never met in real life, but interact with on a weekly basis via social media. Perhaps my favorite reaction came from author Paul Michael Anderson, who said: “But…WHY?” I had very personal reasons to do this. See, my viewings of Dr. Peterson’s lectures and guest appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience didn’t give me enough justification to dismiss him as a fascist or a low-rent ideologue. His discourse appeared somewhat reasonable if a little easy and amorphous.
So, I decided to read his book. Because I don’t believe in boogeymen. Even less in this false equivalence that left versus right equals good versus evil or vice versa. I want to understand culturally important people for who they are and what they really represent. I was initially afraid that 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos would be just one of a thousand pieces puzzle crafted by vaporous intellectual figure hellbent on not being figured out, but I was wrong.
This is a good book. I didn’t agree with perhaps 50% of what was in there, but it was by far the most stimulating things I’ve read all year. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a good week afterwards. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is not a straightforward self-help book. It’s also part memoir, manifest and academic research. And it’ll help you understand Peterson better, because he’s as honest and unguarded as he’s ever been in there.
I have gained quite a bit of respect for him through this book. He’s not Voldemort. He’s not an academic Tyler Durden who “cuts through the bullshit” either. Dr. Jordan Peterson is a complicated in-between and I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned by reading his bestseller.
Is Jordan Peterson a fascist?
When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future. Then you disturb others, in the depths of their soul,where they understand that their cynicism and immobility are unjustifiable.
He's not alt right or a meninist either.
His worldview is definitely conservative and he’s more of an ideologue that he’d like to admit, but he is, first and foremost, a psychologist and psychologists want to help people.
The first idea he puts forward in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is one I agree with: we live in a hierarchy of dominance, just like animals do. That involves struggle, conflicts, winner, losers, dominants who get to eat first and submissives who will spend their lives starving and fighting for scraps. If you don’t believe this is true, you’re either extremely privileged or you’re simply not looking at the world outside the confines of your own life. And this hierarchy is never going away, just like there will never be world peace and that world hunger will never be tamed.
But a hierarchy of dominance is a fluid structure. It’s possible to move up and down its ladder and 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is Dr. Jordan Peterson’s attempt to help you navigate it, based on his own individual success story. Whether you like him or hate him, it’s undeniable that Peterson is highly successful and that he established a dominant cultural presence since he started broadcasting his lectures on YouTube in 2013. His thesis is the following: life is a struggle and you’re on your own. So, better take responsibility for who you are and learn how to defend yourself, because everybody else is coming for your lunch money.
Whether you believe it's righteous or not, it isn’t aimed at a specific gender or ethnic group. It’s a philosophical baseline I believe everyone could benefit from: men, women, trans people, gay, straight, Black, Arabic, you name it. If you’re unsatisfied with your life, the first thing you should do is take some responsibility. The only way you will be able to change the outcome of events in your life is by changing the way you interact with them and you do that by changing yourself, first. According to his Wikipedia page, one of Jordan Peterson's fields of expertise if assessment and improvement of personality and performance, and it’s what his twelve rules aim to do.
So, Dr. Peterson isn’t a fascist and 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos aims to help people, but that doesn’t mean being martyred by mouth-frothing leftist with an axe to grind. He’s far too cunning and limber for that.
Inspirational vs Political Readings
Something new and radical is still almost always wrong.
While reading this book, I changed my mind several times as to whether Jordan Peterson was severely misunderstood or severely misleading. Fortunately for me, he solved that debate with Rule #11: do not bother children when they are skateboarding. In this chapter, Peterson goes on a long, winding but informed rant on the crisis of masculinity and the invasion of postmodern Marxism on culture. He calls these people self-appointed judges of the human race.
The floor falls from under the self-help pretenses and he just goes off. He becomes exactly the person my online friends love to hate so much.
Now, I’m not going to thoroughly analyze and judge what Peterson said in this chapter. Some of it I agree with, some of it I thought was irresponsible and reductive. I do think there is a crisis of masculinity going on as the old role models are growing obsolete, but Dr. Peterson and I are disagreeing on the level of responsibility men themselves had in causing it in the first place and should have in resolving it. Basically, we have to figure out shit out and try not to alienate women, who have been courageously figuring their own for over a century now. In fact, we should be inspired by them instead of fighting them off and belittling them.
Anyway, the last two chapters of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos validate any kind of political reading one should make of it. Take the hierarchy of dominance, for example: I chapter 11, Peterson criticizes Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of deconstruction, calling it nihilistic and destructive. He says that according to the French philosopher, there are no facts and that they threaten hierarchies, which is something he firmly believes in.
In order to understand why this is important, you need to know that Derrida’s philosophy is at the heart of most humanities disciplines such as feminist studies, post-colonial studies, Kanye West studies and whatever studies you might think of. It’s because of him that you can make a post-colonial read of Robinson Crusoe and figure out we were pretty fucking racists even when we weren’t trying to be. It’s because of him you can make a feminist read of The Count of Monte-Cristo and call Alexandre Dumas a phallocrat. I don’t know if that happened, I’m not an expert on feminism in literature, but it could’ve. It’s also because of Derrida you can make a political reading of Jordan Peterson’s book and interpret his intentions. Fortunately, he’s pretty honest about them, so it isn't difficult.
I do think that his Rule #11 argument can be integrated to his hierarchy of dominance argument in Rule #1 : Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Women are now more aware that they’ve been either erased from cultural history of pigeonholed in reductive, stereotypical roles that damaged their evolution. And guess what? They’re entitled to think that and to fight for that because it’s true. There are facts, historical facts that prove that women weren’t equals for almost all of history. They couldn’t get jobs for hundreds of years and when they could, they only could choose between nurse and schoolteacher for decades. They’re still paid less than men today because of that cultural stopgap they were caught in for so long. There are still virtually no women in engineering, tech, finance, because it’s viewed as typically masculine.
Derrida, for all his faults, enabled a struggle that is righteous. While he might’ve enabled a crisis of masculinity at the same time, we men might’ve all had a collective role to play in it by being self-centered assholes. Women are climbing up the hierarchy of dominance and rightfully so.
Furthermore, even if women contributed nothing substantial to art, literature and the sciences prior to the 1960s and the feminist revolution (which is not something I believe), then the roles they played raising children and working on the farms was still instrumental in raising boys and freeing up men - a very few men - so that humanity could propagate itself and strive forward.
So, when Peterson says deliberately short-sighted bullshit like women didn’t contribute to culture before the sixties in the same chapter, I can't help but roll my eyes. That was a comment made in bad faith, by someone who should’ve known better. This is cheap reasoning straight out of a Father Knows Best episode.
Same thing for black people, they are entitled to equity in education and the job market and there are probably lazy white people who could fall down the social hierarchy in consequence.
Dr. Peterson wears his politics on his sleeve in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. While they are not fascist, they are conservative and antiquated, and sometimes he behaves like someone struggling to keep his place in the hierarchy of dominance. Calling him out on them is 100% fair game.
Understanding Dr. Jordan Peterson
The Christian doctrine elevated the individual soul, placing slave and master and commoner and noblemen alike on the same metaphysical footing, rendering them equal before God and the law.
In order to understand why Jordan Peterson thinks the way he thinks and why it’s not always bad, you need to understand where he comes from. For many years he studied formative texts, mostly the Bible because its teachings are still today at the heart of Occidental culture. We have mostly secularized over the twentieth century, but the world we live in is still strongly based on Judeo-Christian values. There are countless allusions to the Bible and its various teachings in 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Peterson believes in the Bible. It’s unclear as if he religiously believes in it, but he strongly believes in its set of rules. He loves it enough to overlook its inherent contradictions like inequity between men and women. And he loves rules. Peterson believes that rules and hierarchies are what the world is relying on to subsist and he’s not wrong. He’s also not wrong to think that constantly challenging these rules can have unintended consequences.
One of the chapters I really liked from the book described his ideas of order and chaos. Order is the known. It’s the world you live in and the things you came to expect and understand. It’s expecting a Big Mac trio at McDonalds after you pay at the counter. Chaos is what you felt when the Twin Towers came down on 9/11. It’s the unknown. It’s something that happens outside of the world you understand. It’s also what you feel in your life when a spouse unexpectedly leaves you, a friend dies or illness strikes. It redefines the rules and plunges you into chaos.
Sure, these could be interpreted as simplistic, but they’re also all-encompassing, well-defined and easy to understand. That’s one thing I enjoyed about 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Sometimes, Jordan Peterson doesn’t capture the complexity of individual existence, but he always keeps it simple and clear enough for you to entertain debate. Say what you want about him, but he’s not afraid to be understood and challenged. He is honest and supremely confident in his worldview.
Peterson believes in order, rules, hierarchy and while I believe myself they’re inescapable to some degree, I thought his argument was a little stiff. He says early in the book that since we can’t afford armed conflict anymore (our weapons have become too powerful), we should fall back on the book of rules that assured our survival for two thousand years. But that book of rules lead us to nothing but conflict for two thousand years, so maybe it’s time we carve our own way, a better way, before we get caught in the apocalyptic conflict he talks about.
In other words, I think Jordan Peterson’s worldview is not necessarily destructive, but it’s a little bit dated… and perhaps motivated by a self-interested conservative agenda. The world’s been changing faster and faster over the last twenty years and older people have a difficult time keeping up.
Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency - your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred.
I loved 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I think everybody should read it for the good and for the bad. It has powerful, self-affirming lessons on the motors behind self-defeat, the pursuit of happiness and the foundation of success. His insight is clear and irrefutable as it is backed by years and years of research. It is not the cesspool of alt-right pandering toxic masculinity that some critics made it out to be. Whoever said that, I’d prefer to have a lunch with Dr. Peterson over having lunch with them any day.
But some of the criticism towards the psychologist is warranted. His worldview is fiercely conservative and he’s barely hiding his personal agenda. He can be deliberately close-minded and irritating. But that’s how everybody is. Nobody is a shining beacon of progressive ideals and, fortunately, very few people are genocidal nationalists. That doesn’t change the fact that 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is a powerful book. And like any powerful tool, you can use it to build a shelter for yourself or to attack others.
I’m not telling you that Jordan Peterson is misunderstood and that you should rethink what you think of him, but you should start listening to him and stop dismissing his ideas. He is important, whether you want to admit it or not, and berating him on social media will only lead to more far-right cooptation.
Let's reappropriate ourselves Jordan Peterson. Let's respectfully call him out on his wrongdoings and enjoy good in his work.